Hunts Point voters stayed home

Photo by Cassie Wagler

Mayoral candidate Bill Thompson campaigning in Hunts Point.

If residents had gone to polls, would Bloomberg be mayor?

By Cassie Wagler

On a chilly October morning, a middle-aged man in a gray suit stood at the entrance to the Hunts Point subway station. With a friendly smile he extended his hand into the crowd of commuters. “Hi, I’m Bill Thompson,” he said as he shook hands.

The big story of the 2009 mayoral election was how close New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. came to defeating Mayor Michael Bloomberg. After spending $102 million of his own money, Bloomberg won the election by less then five points. Thompson, who relied on campaign contributions and the city’s public financing system was outspent by 12 to one.

The surprisingly narrow margin has led pundits and politicians to ask: Could Thompson have won? The answer may lie in the attitudes of voters in neighborhoods like Hunts Point and Longwood.

As the only borough that consistently goes for the Democratic mayoral candidate, the Bronx is an important battleground in New York City elections. Though it was clear from the beginning of the campaign that Bloomberg would carry Queens, Staten Island and Manhattan, it remained unknown if a high voter turnout in the Bronx and Brooklyn could tip the election in Thompson’s favor.

In Hunts Point and Longwood, Thompson won handily. But fewer than one-third of those who voted for President in 2008 voted in November’s mayoral election, and the proportion of local voters who went to the polls was smaller than the figures citywide, where a million people cast a ballot for mayor, compared with two million in the presidential race.

In the end, in a city of over eight million residents Mayor Bloomberg won the election by about 50,000 votes, a margin small enough that the stay-at-homes could have decided the election.

A week and a half before Election Day, Thompson staff and volunteers at the Hunts Point subway station were still confident he could win. Daniel Contreras, Bronx field organizer for the campaign, earnestly shouted, “Come meet your new mayor!” to approaching commuters.

“He does this about three to four times a week,” explained Thompson’s press secretary, referring to his subway stop campaigning. This was both strategy and necessity according to Carlos “Charlie” Ramos, who works in the Comptroller’s office and was out volunteering for the Thompson campaign. With limited funds Thompson found it difficult to compete with Bloomberg’s radio and TV presence. So hee used other means, like shaking hands.

Community activist and Bronx resident John Rozankowski was confident a high turnout in the Bronx could produce a win for the Democrat. “Bloomberg has undermined civil society,” said Mr. Rozankowski, who has a Ph.D. in history and is active in transportation issues. “By extending term limits he has decreased the public’s faith in the validity our political system. It’s time to get someone new in.”

But while 11,144 residents of the 84th Assembly District, which covers most of the South Bronx and includes Hunts Point and Longwood, agreed and voted for Thompson, they were just a small fraction of the eligible voters.

In the 84th district, six thousand fewer people voted in this year’s election than in 2005, when Bloomberg swamped former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer but Ferrer won 77 percent of the vote locally.

The 2008 presidential election puts the dismal turnout this year in even starker perspective. Then, the participation of young people and black and Latino voters was cited as one the reasons for Barack Obama’s resounding victory. On Election Day 32,644 people in the 84th Assembly District came out to the polls. Ninety-two percent of those votes went to Obama.

Thompson tried to appeal to Obama supporters. A line on the campaign website implored: “If we can elect a President surely we can elect a mayor.” But Thompson did not bring voters to the polls the way Obama did.

Kevin Ellison, a Hunts Point resident, landlord, and Thompson volunteer, blamed Bloomerg’s huge cash advantage. He likened the contest to basketball game between a cash-strapped public high school and a wealthy private school team, with flashy uniforms and a new gym. Though the new gym won’t win the game, it sure can help.

According to Orgilia Arias, who lives in Hunts Point and runs a child care business, however, the Thompson campaign was flawed. It focused too much on the negative aspects of Bloomberg and not enough on the positive attributes of Thompson, she argues.

Standing on the subway platform near where Thompson was shaking hands, Arias, who once worked as a campaign strategist in her native Dominican Republic, studied the flier given to her by Thompson volunteers. “Who is this guy?” she asked gesturing at Thompson’s photo. “I don’t know anything about him.”

A version of this story appeared in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.

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